When someone thinks about the most memorable photograph in the history of the United States Marine Corp, you might be picturing the world famous flag raising that declared victory on the Island of Iwo Jima in February of 1945 in the South Pacific during World War II. The daunting scene of the stars and stripes flying atop Mount Suribachi was filled with the unfamiliar faces of young marines raising the flag with outstretched arms. Every one of those Marines that landed on that black, sandy beach had preconceived fears and ideas for the unknown events that were to come. Set your previously conceived mental images aside of Iwo Jima, and be prepared to make the landing with the Marines.
Your prior notions about the invasion of Iwo Jima will the first thing to go, just as those pre-conceived notions of the young Marines were changed by the reality of war. Iwo Jima was a place where no matter which way a soldier turned, there was yet another new and profound thing to have experienced. As a soldier experienced scenes of life and death, he became empowered to live in the moment. By living in the here and now, many acts of bravery and valor were inspired. The many acts of heroism were individually inspired and motivated by unwavering deeds of passion and selflessness.
From Iwo Jima to Hiroshima: The Atomic Bomb
What very few Americans knew at the time was that seizure of Iwo Jima was an integral part of preparations for the atomic bombing of Japan. As early as October of 1944; four months before its invasion, Iwo Jima had been designated as an emergency landing point for B-29’s carrying atomic bombs. In fact, the Enola Gay refueled and landed on Iwo Jima as a part of its charted flight path to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on August 5, 1945. Iwo Jima was an emergency landing field, if the aircraft carrying the bomb need to abandon its mission. If the aircraft carrying the bomb malfunctioned, it would have landed at Iwo Jima to transfer the bomb to a spare plane, which would have continued the mission. The island had no real strategic value in terms of a future amphibious invasion of Japan, but was a vital element in dropping the atomic bomb.and serving as a P-51 fighter base.
Honoring the Flag Raisers: U.S. Marine Corps (3rd, 4th, and 5th Divisions)
Two world-famous and time honored quotations have come down to us from the Battle of Iwo Jima. The first was delivered by the then-Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, who witnessed the raising of the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi. Turning to Marine Lieutenant-General Holland Smith, he observed: “Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.” The second quote was by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, who said after the battle: “Among the Americans serving on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Many time honored facts have supported these quotations, many of which are uncommon to most Americans.
Uncommon facts regarding the invasion of Iwo Jima, February of 1945 in the South Pacific Sea:
- General Holland M. Smith, called the “father” of modern U.S. amphibious warfare, used naval sea power and Marine Corps ground troops to defeat the Japanese.
- Two days out of Honolulu the identity of the “Island X” was revealed as the point of invasion.
- The Marines had the task of liberating an ugly little hunk of slag in the ocean, nearly barren of trees or grasses or flowers. It was a dry wasteland (void of potable water) of black volcanic ash that stunk of sulphur (“Iwo Jima” means “sulfur island”).
- The Army Air Force bombed the island in advance of the Marines invasion using. B-29 Super Fortresses and B-24 Liberators, which pummeled the island unmercilessly for seventy-two consecutive days, setting a record for most consecutive bombing days of a target in the Pacific War.. Reconnaissance photographs showed every square inch of the island was bombed. Admiral Nimitz mistakenly though that the bombing had pulverized and weakened the enemy defenses.
- Although, reliable photographic evidence painted a grim picture for the invading forces: Initially, there were 450 major enemy installations when the bombing began, survelliance showed that at the conclusion of the bombing a total of 750 major installations. Althought military leadership was in disbelief, they did not alter invasion plans.
- The air raids were called “softening up” activities, but in fact, Iwo Jima was becoming hardened.
- There would be no “surprise attack” at Iwo Jima. Japanese General Kuribayashi was well prepared to fight to the death.
- General Kuribayashi had transformed Iwo Jima into the most ingenious fortress in the history of warfare. He created one huge blockhouse with 1500 underground rooms connected by sixteen miles of tunnels. Running over the heads of 22,000 well-fed troops with five months of rations.
- “The Courageous Battle Vow” was posted on the walls of the bunkers, caves, and blockhouses on the island. It read:
“We are here to defend this island to the limit of our strength. We must devote ourselves to that task entirely. Each of your shots must kill many Americans….. No man must die until he has killed at least ten Americans…. Long live the Emperor!”
General Kuribayashi wrote to his wife in a letter a private thought that he never shared with his men: “The United States is the last country in the world Japan should fight.”
- 120,000 Japanese and Americans on and off shore, consumed life and limb during thirty-six days of combat by killing or maimimg more than half of the land combatants. The Battle of Iwo Jima turned into a primitive contest of gladiators; Japanese gladiators fighting from caves and tunnels like the catacombs of the Roman Colosseum, and the American gladiators aboveground, exposed on all sides, using liquid gasoline to burn their opponents out of their lethal hiding places.
- The importance of the capture of Mount Suribachi was described by General Holland Smith, “the success of our entire assault depended upon the early capture of that grim, smoking rock.”
- One early mistake in the real time of the invasion was to assume that a source of the enemy fire, once extinguished, was permanently dead. It wasn’t. George Bernstein, my step father, shared how the Marines had to regain territory because the Japanese would flank the troops using hidden tunnels.
- The U.S. military’s highest distinction, the Medal of Honor was awarded to 27 soldiers on Iwo Jima, 14 posthumously. By comparison only 82 received the award for their service in the Pacific in total.
- The casualties were many; 6.821 U.S. marines were killed and 19,217 wounded in the battle. Over 20,000 Japanese soldiers were killed, a few thousand went into hiding while only 216 prisoners were taken. Just 2 Japanese soldiers remained in hiding on the island until they finally surrendered in 1951.
- Iwo Jima’s highest point was the site of Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph, it measures 528 feet above sea level.
The uninhabitanted volcanic island measures roughly 8 square miles, and it is located 660 miles south of Tokyo, and equidistant from Guam.
The Proud, The Few:
To honor the fallen soldiers and courageous survivors of the Battle of Iwo Jima, a few authentic photographs are shared to remind us of the human cost for our freedom and liberty. This slogan reflects the unique character of the Marine Corps and underscores the high caliber of those who join and serve their country as Marines, ” Major General Richard T. Tyron, commanding general.